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Case Studies & Technical Articles

March 2011

The Decision to Automate

Automating a laser cutting system can improve efficiency and capacity by 25 percent

It seems these days we are all being asked to do more with less -- less people, less cost, less time.

So what can a manufacturer do to keep up with business demands without incurring the cost of adding employees?

What happens when demand fluctuates month over month as it has during the last year? Can a manufacturer really sustain and justify a second or third shift in this slow-growth yet inconsistent economy?

If you find yourself asking these questions, then it’s time to think about automating your manufacturing processes.


While automation itself requires an initial investment and justification, the real benefits often are not explored to their fullest to realize a fast ROI. (Fig. 1)
Fig. 1  This laser cutting machine is
equipped with a load/unload device,
material storage towers, and
material management controller.

Let’s use Ace Fabricators as an example. It currently is running two shifts, but before the downturn in the economy was working three shifts. Ace has enough work to fill two and a half shifts, maybe three occasionally. The company is thinking about adding a third shift but isn’t sure it can be justified. On-time customer deliveries are key to maintaining customer satisfaction, but high personnel costs and the rising costs of materials are really cutting into profits. So how does Ace do more with less?

Let’s take a closer look and see how this fabricator operates on a day-to-day basis.

Ace is running lean on material inventory and orders materials only as needed for the incoming job orders. OK, let’s stop right there for a moment. With the rising costs of raw materials, wouldn’t Ace get a better price for buying in bulk? But where would it store this material? Is this not counter to lean thinking?

The company stores its raw materials for stock in lateral bundles on the shop floor. OK, let’s stop right there again. When the material is stored on the shop floor, it is taking up valuable manufacturing floor space. That space potentially could be used to create additional manufacturing and production capacity by moving the bulk material to a vertical material storage and retrieval system.

The basic way to calculate floor space cost is to divide the square footage of the building by the monthly building costs, including utilities. More realistically, however, the production space of a manufacturing facility is more valuable in cost per square foot than office space, so you have to factor in the potential value of that floor space in terms of manufacturing and revenue generation.

For example, if the space can be used for another piece of fabrication equipment, the value-added dollar potential of this equipment needs to be examined. This must be added to the cost per square foot, as you are not utilizing this floor space to its full potential.

Ace uses a laser for its primary operations. Each job that is to be processed requires engineering time for programming the parts and creating the nest. Yes, this too can be automated.

Software exists that will read an order as soon as it is released from an ERP or production planning system and then subsequently convert the existing CAD data to a CAM file and ready for nesting.

Once the software is scheduled to process the orders, all of the orders that meet the due date criteria can be nested together by material type and thickness. Based on the software rules, if a nest meets the minimum yield criteria, then it is automatically released to the laser cutting machine and processed automatically.

Nests that do not meet the minimum yield are held for manual release or can be put back into the order pool, waiting for more parts to satisfy the minimum material yield.

Once the material arrives at the laser cutter, the operator must manually load and unload it. The operators must take breaks for meals and for other nonmanufacturing-related reasons.

What if the raw material is not loaded in time for the next job? What if the cut material is not unloaded in time after it is cut? What if the operator needs to use a fork truck to now find and then load the new raw material? What does this lost production time cost, and how much manufacturing capacity is lost?

Studies have shown that automating the material retrieval, loading, and unloading for the laser cutting system can easily generate a 25 percent gain in efficiency and capacity per shift.

With this gain in efficiency, the company would not only produce more parts, but it would also lower its cost per part and gain the much needed capacity it was looking for. 

Such automation could work on an unmanned second or third shift or on weekends, offering Ace greater flexibility in capacity utilization and ensuring customer delivery deadlines are satisfied.

To take full advantage of the benefits of automation, Ace’s best bet would be to integrate a storage and retrieval system with its primary cutting machine. This would be considered an advanced storage solution. (Fig. 2)

Fig. 2  A material storage and
retrieval device moves
between towers, processing
machine requests.
This type of automation consists of storage towers that are filled with movable material shelves, a retrieval elevator that moves the material shelves into the tower, a material delivery frame with suction cups to present the material to the machine for processing, and a material management system that controls the inventory in the storage tower and also manages the material requests from the cutting machine.

While this is only one example, perhaps you can begin to see the justification for automation.

Do the math for your own business and see how you can do more with less when you make the decision to automate.


Need Profile I

Flexible and quick job processing comes first.

The deadline rules.

The planning horizon for jobs is less than two days.

The production structure is characterized by nonrepeating, small jobs.

Primarily complex parts are produced.

Frequent change requests are typical.

Level: A simple material loading system will suffice.


Need Profile II

The production structure is characterized by medium-sized and large jobs.

Jobs are, as a rule, produced repeatedly.

The planning horizon for jobs is longer than two days.

Raw material storage is small; only a few different material types and sizes are stored.

Level: A loading/unloading station can be used.


Need Profile III

The production structure is characterized by frequently repeated jobs.

Primarily, material thicknesses worked are from 1 to 6 mm.

Level: A loading/unloading and sorting station is appropriate.


Need Profile IV

The production structure is characterized by small, medium-sized, and large jobs.

• In addition to repeated jobs, one-off jobs are accepted.

• The planning horizon for jobs is longer than one day.

• Material storage is large; more than 40 different material types and sizes are stored.

Level: A fully integrated loading/unloading/sorting and storage tower system is recommended.

By Frank J. Arteaga,
Head of Product Management
Bystronic Inc.

As printed in Canadian Industrial Machinery
March 2011, Vol. 24 No. 12
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